How much does a skiing holiday in North Korea cost? Russian tourists, “100% satisfied” with Kim Jong-un's resort

Several Russian tourists have been on a skiing holiday in North Korea. Olga Shpalok, a Russian designer from Vladivostok, said she was “100% satisfied”. What's more, after a whole day spent skiing, she decided it was time to relax with a visit to the spa, The Guardian reports.

Kim Jong-un at the inauguration of the Masik mountain resort in North Korea. Photo: Reuters (Archive)

They said it is very difficult to enter the country. But fate smiled on us”she confessed.

Shpalok was part of the first group of foreign tourists to visit North Korea since it closed its borders at the start of the 2020 pandemic.

In early February, she went to the country with 100 other Russian tourists on a four-day skiing trip described by the Russian embassy as “Pyongyang opens its doors“.

More than 200 Russian tourists have visited North Korea since the beginning of this year, in three visits in February and March. Their testimonies provide a rare insight into life under the Kim Jong-un regime.

Keep a close eye on “supervisors” government restrictions that restricted the places they could visit, Russian tourists spoke of spending time in luxury ski resorts that were otherwise empty.

“Telling Evidence”

Some stated that they felt a deep anxiety due to poverty and total control.

It is no coincidence that Russia has access to this state. The two countries have come closer at an unprecedented rate, brought closer by the invasion launched in Ukraine.

North Korea has become Russia's biggest arms supplier, supplying shells, missiles and other equipment for the war waged by Moscow. Instead, Russia appears to be sending North Korea food, raw materials and parts used in the manufacture of weapons, circumventing international sanctions imposed on the country.

Groups of Russian tourists visiting North Korea present another way Moscow could help Pyongyang. Before the pandemic, around 5,000 Western tourists visited North Korea each year on expensive tours, but since Covid-19 the borders have been closed.

Facing increasingly drastic international sanctions and a food crisis triggered by pandemic isolation, any amount of money is welcome in Pyongyang's coffers.

It is a telling testament to the regime's priorities that North Korea has chosen to allow access to Russian tourists, but continues to reject appeals by humanitarian organizations for access,” said Hanna Song of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul.

“Perfectly Disciplined”

These trips, first announced in January by several Russian travel agencies, cost $750. This amount includes the round-trip plane ticket to Pyongyang, at the only international airport in the capital of North Korea.

Domestic flight to the ski resort on North Korea's east coast, hotel accommodation and meals were also covered.

The $40 daily ski pass, souvenirs and other expenses, including alcohol and cigarettes, were paid out of pocket, in cash.

The journeys begin with a two-hour flight from Vladivostok, Russia's far eastern city, to Pyongyang, operated by North Korea's state airline Air Koryo. The company operates an aging fleet of mostly Russian-made Tu-154 aircraft.

When I got on the plane, I wondered if we would make it“, recalled Alexandra Daniyelko, a public relations manager from Moscow who was on one of the trips.

Upon arrival in Pyongyang, the Russian tourists visited the central Kim Il-sung Square, bowed to the bronze statues of leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansu Hill, and attended a youth musical performance at Mangyongdae Children's Palace, where members of communist youth groups presented a patriotic music and dance performance.

These carefully staged shows are traditionally full of government propaganda, aimed at instilling in North Koreans national pride and loyalty to the dictator's family, which has been in power since 1948.

I cried at the purity, kindness and talent of these childrenDaniyelko said, describing the show.

Another Russian tourist described the children as “perfectly disciplined and obedient“, stating that the local supervisors confiscated the chocolates that some Russian tourists brought for them.

“Hopelessness and Constant Control”

But for many of the tourists, the holiday really began on the second day, when they boarded a domestic flight to the coastal city of Wonsan, near the Masikryong ski resort.

The resort is one of the major construction projects carried out at the request of the North Korean leader in recent years and is believed to have cost £24m.

Guests are taken to the slopes in old Austrian-made gondolas imported from China.

Russian tourists were told they would be staying in a “five-star resort in the style of the Swiss Alps“, which was built by order of the dictator, himself educated in Switzerland.

Pictures posted on Instagram showed decorated hotel rooms, a modern swimming pool, a sauna, a massage area and a hair salon.

“There were no people on the main slopes, which was perfect” said Ekaterina Kolomeetsa, a travel blogger from Vladivostok.

The empty ski slopes are hardly surprising considering there are apparently only 5,500 skiers among a population of 24 million.

Despite North Korea's efforts to present a very neat image of their country, some Russian tourists said they left worried.

Throughout the trip you could feel the hopelessness and constant control in the countryShpalok said. In Pyongyang, while traveling on a bus with other tourists, she said she rarely saw cars or people on the roads. “I asked our guides where everyone was. They told us that people were happy at work“.

“A Dose of Absurdity”

Tourists were strictly forbidden to film houses or ordinary people and could not venture out on walks alone. The few people Shpalok saw seemed “short and hungry”, while some children were “barely dressed” despite the cold.

Iulia Mishkova, another Russian tourist, said the trip was worthwhile for those who “look for a dose of absurdity“.

I felt sorry for the frightened North Koreansi,” said Mishkova, adding that it was hard to ignore the fact that her daily ski pass cost more than the average monthly salary. “I will not go again for moral and ethical reasons“.

However, both countries seem to have big plans for the future. According to a report from the government of Primorsky Krai, a region in Russia's far east located on the border between the two countries, North Korea is also building another ski resort for Russian tourists that will include 17 hotels, 37 guesthouses and 29 shops.

Tatyana Markova, a representative of the Vostok Intur travel agency, said that two trips to North Korea have already been planned for the Russian holidays in May.

This is just the beginning“, reads a recent ad promoting May tours to North Korea. “Be sure to reserve your spot quickly!”.